Interested in meditation, or heard about mindfulness but no idea where to start? Find out more about meditation for stress management and how to introduce it into your everyday self-care routine
Sadly, stress is a ubiquitous reality which infiltrates even children’s lives. Some experience the effects mentally. suffering symptoms of anxiety such as sleepless nights, mulling over past events, or anticipating, with worry, things that may never happen.
Others may feel the symptoms physically, while not immediately associating these with stress. Manifestations can include stomach cramps, stiff muscles, headaches, low energy, indigestion, memory loss, and weight gain. Whichever camp you fall into, it is now universally accepted that stress contributes to a wide array of health problems, and that we need to find ways to manage it.
By now, most of us have heard of the ‘fight or flight’ response; the mechanism designed to get us up and running in the event of an emergency. This mechanism is wonderfully complex, involving a sequence of hormonal messages that increase our heartbeat and breathing to supply our muscles with blood and oxygen for the necessary surge of energy.
Our pupils dilate to allow extra light into the eyes so that we can become extra aware of our surroundings. Systems that are not immediately necessary - such as the digestive system and the reproductive system - slow down while the body concentrates efforts elsewhere. While essential to our survival, if it were to remain ‘switched on’ most of the time, our flight or flight response mechanism - also known as the sympathetic nervous system - could negatively impact our health.
Meditation for stress management
Much like yoga, meditation has become a globally-accepted tool for managing not only day-to-day stress, but also conditions such as addiction, depression, and anxiety. It also presents as a psychological tool for pain management.
There are many types of meditation, but broadly speaking, they fall into two categories: mantra-based, and mindfulness meditation. Mantra-based meditation, such as transcendental meditation are very popular. Numerous scientific studies have shown positive effects on the brain. As for mindfulness, apps like Calm and Headspace, which have been downloaded over 11 million times, have also been reported to have positive outcomes.
Why not experiment with the different types until you find one that suits you, and then practice this as often as time will allow?
There are several mantra-based meditations. Many are derived from ancient Vedic Sanskrit rituals, some as old as 3000 years. It is interesting to note the similarity of chants in the other religious practices of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity. Practitioners believe these to have spiritual and/or psychological powers. Some mantras are spoken out loud, whilst others are repeated silently. Some have one syllable such as ‘Om’, whilst others are lengthier with more melodic tones while still having no specific meaning. The intention is to allow the mind to simply focus on the sound itself, avoiding distraction by any word associations.
Om-chanting has been found to release ‘positive’ brain chemicals, such as dopamine, endorphins and serotonin, all of which have positive effects in reducing anxiety. Om-chanting calms the fight or flight response, enforcing regular breathing and allowing the body to resume normal processes of digestion and reproduction. Interestingly, Om-chanting appears to desensitise the amygdala; the part of the brain that regulates our reactions to stressors such as anger and irritation.
Transcendental meditation (TM) is the silent repetition of a mantra. It was made popular in the West by The Beatles, who were pupils of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an Indian guru. TM has been found to help in the treatment of anxiety, insomnia, and fatigue. It has been shown to enhance job performance and to increase job satisfaction. Studies have demonstrated some remarkable results associated with TM. Long-term practitioners reported a 50% reduction in pain response. And there is a desensitising of the thalamus and medial occipital lobe, both implicated in pain. It is also thought that TM can be responsible for the reduction of (adverse) sensory processing. Additionally, studies conducted on incarcerated women, who had a high incidence of trauma, reported significant reductions in stress, as well as a reduction in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Mindfulness meditation is not a religious-based practice. It involves the discipline of observing thoughts and emotions in the present while avoiding conscious judgment. The practice involves being fully present in the current moment and merely observing thoughts that come into the mind. Only a few people can quieten the mind completely. To many, this idea represents a seemingly impossible task. However, most of us can ‘watch our thoughts’ and see pictures in our mind’s eye. With practice, however, one can do so from a distance, and without getting attached emotionally. This is mindfulness.
[Mindfulness] involves being fully present in the current moment and merely observing thoughts that come into the mind
Mindfulness can be practised on your own or done with the help of apps. The more often you practice, the easier it becomes. Emerging evidence suggests long-term use of some apps alters base mood positively. While it has also been suggested that the skill may help modulate one’s response to negative events, lessening sensitivity to painful experiences. Heart rate is a measure used to evaluate a variety of stress-related disorders, including PTSD. Even brief engagement in mindfulness meditation has shown to improve this measure. Furthermore, one study also found improvements in overcoming insomnia for the sleep-deprived, and a reduction of cravings for those who abuse substances.
Although more research needs to be done to clarify the nuanced differences between the mantra-based meditation and mindfulness meditation, it is clear that they both can have enormous benefits for stress-related symptoms. Why not experiment with the different types until you find one that suits you, and then practice this as often as time will allow?
How to start your meditation practice
While meditation and mindfulness are practices with stress-reduction and relaxation at the core, the thought of introducing either practice in your everyday routine may actually enhance feelings of stress. It can be an overwhelming time - you put pressure on yourself to do it regularly because of the benefits, but jumping straight into the deep end may result in you falling ‘off the wagon’.
But there are small steps and changes you can make to introduce mindfulness and meditation into your life, without the pressure. By slowly allowing yourself to learn and understand what you need and what meditation truly means for you, it can become a part of your life and wellbeing routine.
Are you ready to get started? Read our articles and begin your meditation journey.
Staying Mindful in the New Year
How Meditation Can Help Rewire Your Thinking
How to Apply Mindfulness at Work
I Changed My Life With Mindfulness
What Happens When You Meditate Before Bed Every Night?
5 Apps to Ease Stress